Does proportional representation lead to higher turnout?

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 10th February 2022

A healthy democracy requires healthy levels of democratic participation – the most crucial element of which is turnout at general elections. But Britain has one of the lowest turnout rates in the west – a fact some have attributed to our voting system. So, could a switch to proportional representation (PR) encourage more people to go to the polls?

The quickest way to see whether there is any correlation between voting systems and turnout is to simply look at the real-life data. Using the IDEA’s Voter Turnout Database we can average the turnout for lower house elections in western established democracies since 2000. The countries that use proportional voting systems are in purple and the countries that use non-proportional voting systems are in dark blue.

Average Turnout in Lower House Elections since 2000

Clearly, countries that use PR do have higher average turnouts than those that don’t. Even not accounting for the two unusual outliers at either end, the gap in average turnout is significant – 77% for PR countries vs 67% for non-PR countries (though this gulf widens to 79% vs 61% when removing Australia and Switzerland).

Australia and Switzerland – the outliers

But what of the two outliers? Australia, like other high scorers Belgium and Luxembourg, has compulsory voting which obviously pushes up turnout. Elections to Australia’s AV-elected House of Representatives also always coincide with elections to its STV-elected Senate, meaning that lower house elections would vicariously benefit from any PR bump.

Switzerland’s appalling turnout rates are typically attributed to its frequent holding of national and local referendums that have induced severe voter fatigue, whereby voters are less likely to vote the more often you ask them to. The low political impact of legislative elections due to the semi-permanently fixed composition of the Swiss government is another contributory factor.

Why would proportional representation lead to higher turnout?

The reasoning behind higher turnout under PR is two-fold. Firstly, there are the ‘input’ benefits. As PR systems allow for a greater number of viable political parties, voters are given a more meaningful choice at the ballot box – leading to fewer voters feeling pressured to vote for a party that isn’t their first preference or even feeling no option speaks for them.

Then there are the ‘output’ benefits. PR leads to much greater levels of representation – both at the national and constituency level. Only 55% of British voters are currently represented by an MP of their choice, compared to 86% of Norwegian voters, 90% of German voters and 92% of Danish voters. Unsurprisingly, more people will bother voting if they feel represented and that their vote won’t be wasted.

Is there a causal relationship between high turnout and PR?

Despite the clear-cut difference in levels of turnout, whether the relationship between voting systems and participation is causal hasn’t always been accepted. Some have suggested that it might simply be the case that the western countries that use PR are predisposed to higher levels of turnout anyway due to differences in political culture, demographics and institutions, as well as more accessible elections (often taking place at weekends).

Part of the problem is that it is hard to exactly compare like for like as elections can’t be conducted twice under different voting systems. The closest we can get are the rare occasions when a country changes voting system. But while it is the case that both New Zealand (1996) and France’s (1986) switches to PR were accompanied by increases in turnout and both of France’s switches to the Two-Round System (1958 and 1988) were followed by significant drops in turnout, it’s not really possible to extrapolate too much from a few one-offs.

Instead, we need to look at more detailed analyses. Blais and Carty’s study of whether PR ‘fostered’ participation in western democracies, which accounted for many intervening variables, concluded that “everything else being equal, turnout is seven percentage points lower in a plurality system, and five percentage points lower in a majority system as compared with PR”. This was added to by a 2003 study of the new democracies of eastern Europe which suggested that, for every 10% of seats that were elected by PR, there was a 1% increase in turnout. Further studies have found evidence in France and Poland.

Ultimately, it is undeniably the case that countries with PR do have higher turnout rates than those that don’t. It is highly probable that introducing PR to the UK would give a short-term boost, but to bring Britain in line with most of western Europe, where the average turnout is twelve points higher, would likely require deeper changes to the political culture and making elections more accessible.

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